THEATER REVIEW : 'Phantom' Bests Lloyd Webber's Extravaganza

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's argue with success.

"Phantom," the Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston musical about the masked man at the Paris Opera, is better than "The Phantom of the Opera," the long-running and super-lucrative Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza.

Fanatics who have suffered withdrawal pains since the Lloyd Webber show closed at the Ahmanson on Aug. 29 should consider the lesser-known version. It's in a production that does it justice, at San Gabriel Valley Civic Light Opera, and so far it isn't slated for anywhere else in the area, since Long Beach Civic Light Opera dropped it in a schedule change.

OK, the opening scene is weaker than that of the famous "Phantom," but the forced jollity ends soon enough. No, the effects aren't as spectacular as those that were at the Ahmanson. But the Phantom story is not an action flick. It's supposed to be a grand romance, and the passions expressed in the Kopit/Yeston "Phantom" are more convincing, more involving and finally more heartbreaking.

In Kopit's book, the Phantom is less of a madman. He had parents who cared. Christine is more of a player, less of a pawn.

In the title role, Sean Smith has a remarkably velvety baritone, ideal for this character. He makes the Phantom's obsessions magnificent rather than just tortured. Smith toiled in the chorus of the Ahmanson "Phantom" for more than four years, so this must be a liberating experience for him. His excitement is contagious.

Victoria Strong's Christine survives that awkward first number and thrives. Her voice comes close to meriting the praise showered on it in the script, and she does commendable double duty as the Phantom's mother in a flashback.

Jack Ritschel repeats his sturdy turn, seen in La Mirada last summer, as the opera's deposed manager, and Lavoie Miller brings a strong voice and plenty of hammy spirit to the role of the villainous diva, the show's comic relief. But Harry Schlager isn't suitably dashing as Christine's other beau.

Director Bill Shaw and choreographer Rikki Lugo stage the proceedings with finesse, and Roger Lockie's orchestra makes Yeston's score sound lush and lively without covering up the singers. The sets--lavish by most standards, though not by Lloyd Webber's--are from the original Houston production and a later one in San Jose.

* "Phantom," San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, 320 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel. Fridays-Saturdays, 8:15 p.m.; Sundays and Oct. 16, 2:15 p.m. Ends Oct. 17. $18-$35. (818) 308-2868. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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